Category Archives: unlearning

UnLearn Religion

UnLearn

At Jacob’s Well we are focusing on UnLearning these days.  (Earlier blog on unlearning)  And since we are a church we need to start at  home,  so it was  UnLearn Religion.  God wants us to  UnLearn it so we can ReLearn Relationship.

I want your constant love, not your animal sacrifices.  I would rather have my people know me than burn offerings to me.    Hosea 6.6 (TEV)

Something that spoke ‘convictingly’ (is that a word?) to me that I shared was this simple distinction between religion and relationship, between being a Christian and following Jesus.  It is this,

“Being a follower of Jesus means that you give up deciding where you will apply Jesus to your life, and instead discover where Jesus wants to take you.”

That is a scary concept that I hope to get good at!

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Beyond the Crazy and the Anti

Scary Jesus (Picture by Ryan Kelly, printed in the City Pages.)

Boy, people who think God matters and are willing to cast aside the mindsets that are so deeply set, like the twin ruts a tractor leaves on a muddy road, sure have a big job ahead of them. But before I get into that I say welcome back to any readers… it has been a LONG time since I’ve posted here… My only excuse, and my least favorite, is being too busy. Everyday brings great stuff to me that I want to blog on… and the month passes by.

Back to the tire ruts.

The Twin Cities free distribution newspaper City Pages has a cover story in their most recent issue (March 5, 2008) called “Jesus Weekend: When teens encounter Christ, all hell breaks loose,” by Matt Snyders.  It is no surprise that an edgy, urban newspaper geared towards the young professionals would be willing to be looking for a potshot or two about religion.  What this article represents is the antagonism towards organized religion that most of the younger generations (can I say most people under 60?!?)  That is the one tire rut.

The other is what they are reacting to.  The conservative, save your soul attitude that is so prevalent in Christian circles.  The article is about a TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) weekend retreat.

As a new church that is trying to re-invent church to be authentic to what Jesus said and did, and to who people truly are today, I don’t want to fall into either of these well worn ruts.  In fact I would hope to help people out of each.  Can we represent a reason for people to climb out of their cynicism of what it means to be a community that seeks to follow Jesus?  Can we help people escape easy answers, formulaic ways of being recognizably ‘Christian’ or ‘saved’ in order to live the messy and lifelong pursuit of knowing and reflecting God?  I think so.  But the ruts are so deep, that it is hard to let people know we aren’t in one or the other, or to keep people from insisting that if we aren’t in their rut, then we are automatically in the other one.

I don’t want to just be in between the ruts, I want to leave them behind.  UnLearn them.  Rise beyond them.

Let me give credit to those I’m reacting to… Matt Snyder did a good job in his article. He was willing to experience it all and didn’t take sniper shots from the safety of his office.  He also was willing to acknowledge the good that came from the weekend.  His last paragraph, if nothing else, concedes this.  And his skepticism is well-founded.

TEC is also the means of good people intending to do good things.  They are taking time, energy and money to deal with a generation of young people who, in so many ways, have lost their rudders.  They do some good work and are not the only ones who aren’t perfect.  Until we have replaced their efforts it is hardly fair for us to say they shouldn’t be doing what they feel is right.  No one is forced to go (except perhaps someone sent by a consenting parent.)

That said, let us find ways to live out this calling where God matters with relevance and honesty.

Punishment from God – part 1

Question marks

People give me great theological questions quite regularly, I suppose because I am a pastor and they assume I have some kind of answer.  Which I do, quite often… but I’d prefer to call them responses rather than answers.  Answers put an issue to rest and finish the inquiry.  Most of the really good and deep questions don’t work that way.  And I don’t know “The Answer” in that sense.  Hopefully some of my knowledge, experience and reflection can point towards something illuminating, but as I like to say, it is probably towards ‘a better question,’ not ‘the answer.’

The question this time was ‘Who goes to hell, and what could be so horrible that God would do that to someone?’ 

First,  I’ve noticed that whenever I get into these big quandaries about God and faith that just don’t seem to be so un-understandable I usually find I’m asking the wrong question.  It’s no surprise that we get no answer or the wrong answer when we ask the wrong question.  The problem here is that we are so trained to ask this question.  “Who’s in and who’s out?”  Undoubtedly the Bible encourages this type of thinking in places.  Jesus’ story of the separation of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25.31ff) is an example of this.  But there are other messages.

One of those is the Gospel Message of unconditional love and acceptance, of a God giving his life in Jesus as a sacrifice paying for our sinfulness precisely so we wouldn’t have to.

Another is the redefinition of obedience that God points to already in the Old Testament (Hebrew scripture), Jeremiah 31.31-34 for instance, and that Jesus seals.  That is the notion that putting ourselves right (translate as ‘righteousness’) doesn’t come from following rules or doing the ritual right, but from an authentic relationship with God.  That is the theme of our worship service the week after Easter (March 30) when we kick off our UnLearn series with “UnLearn Religion.”

My studied and experienced sense of God is that while God is all about discerning what is better from what isn’t as good, it is for the purpose of calling out what if best, not to catch us at the worst.  What I mean is that God isn’t out to get us.  Find our flaws and trip us up.  It doesn’t take God to do that; we can do it for ourselves and each other easily enough.  We are imperfect, unworthy and undeserving at a pretty obvious level.  Stalin’s secret police leader is famous for saying, “Show me the man, and I will show you the crime.”  God, the creator of all things who declared them good is about finding, uncovering, redeeming and reclaiming that which is good and noble and usable within us and our world for the building of the kingdom.  God is about saving, not condemning. 

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3.17)

The real question, the better question… I think it is something like this…

What is it worth to me to seek to know and follow God and live the way I am taught?

What is the cost to live trusting things that shall pass away, allowing the separation between God’s will and my reality to grow wider and wider?

The affirmation that I would add is this…

The more I learn and experience about God the more amazed I am.  And what amazes me is how good God is; graciously, unselfishly, extravagantly loving.  And if I could add to those superlatives, it would be that God does it with mind-boggling variety.  It is not one size fits all.  It is so creative that we often miss it.

So, who goes to hell and what could be so terrible as to deserve eternal punishment?  There are those who will give you the lists.  I’d rather not argue with them, but ask, “What will God’s love accomplish next, and how can I open myself to that love and show it to others?”  The former, to me, is a human question.  The latter, a Jesus question.  Let’s surround our lives with Jesus questions!

This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.”  1 John 4.10 (The Message)

 

Guiding Authentic Spiritual Growth

I looked at the last post [“Which is the greater danger?  Heresy or Blind Compliance”] and I had to say, “Let people make mistakes.”  I completely agree with the concept of letting people take ownership of their faith even though they will and do make mistakes.  And that ownership only happens when people learn for themselves.  But that word “for” is a big one.  It is “for themselves” not “by themselves.”

That means I don’t think it is helpful or responsible to let people wallow around in sloppy thinking or fall prey to deceptive thinking.  It happens too easily.

I’m going to start sketching out a formula for what I try to do, and I hope others will add comments and ideas and raise up examples that others have come up with.

One – Pray – The is a holy process that God’s Spirit is involved with.  It starts here, grows here and ends here.

Two – Scripture – Model a balanced approach to reading the Bible (primarily) and other writings.

Three – Vision – Supply vision for the purpose of faith and what it means to be a Christ follower in your context.

Four – Groups – Create and support opportunities for individualized learning and conversation.  Give general guidance to these experiences, but don’t manage them.

Five – Service – Encourage and give opportunities to people to practice what they believe.

Six – Listen – Leaders learn from what the larger body is discerning.  This allows the body to mature spiritually.

Start process over…

This was just a quick shot at the process… It is an inexact process and certainly full of holes.  Help me with them.  But then… maybe the holes are the faith part…

Who wants to be a member?

You will be assimilated

That’s the Borg Cube from Star Trek. Remember them? They are the ones who cruise the galaxy and ‘assimilate’ everyone so they are no longer who they were, but who the Borg are. No one wants to be one, except those already in. When we talk about becoming ‘a member of the church’ people look at us like we are the Borg invading their otherwise happy universe. In fact, even of our ‘regulars’ at Jacob’s Well (who invest generous amounts of time, passion, expertise and money in the community) react like, “You’re kidding, aren’t you? We aren’t going to do that ‘membership thing’ are we?”

Yet as David Stark taught me some years ago, the problem isn’t that people won’t commit anymore, people commit to all sorts of things all the time. Got a cell phone contract? I rest my case. The question people ask is “Is it worth my investment of time, money, energy, etc to make the commitment?’ Likewise, when I talk about what happens when we do commit to something and understand the truth of our relationship to the growing, developing organism that we call Jacob’s Well they think it is great. When I ask them to think of being a member not as having their names in the book, but like my arm is a member of my body – the arm is lifeless and both are incomplete without each other – then they get it.

Clearly committing to a movement and a community they believe in isn’t the problem. The language is. “Member” triggers an allergic reaction that says, “Oh oh, they are just like all those other churches. They really are just an institution and want us to keep them alive.”

I believe committing to a local church in a very concrete covenanting way isn’t only a good thing, I think it is an essential part of committing to a life of following Christ. The local church is the manifestation of Christ’s body in a specific location. It is the means through which God can touch the lives of people in all fullness. We are looking at ways to talk about and do it.

Before I say what we are thinking of doing I would like to hear your thoughts, reactions and experiences.

Friday morning sabbath

Fridays are the closest thing I have to a Saturday. Being a pastor means that weekends are work time. But when things are relatively caught up (and ‘relatively’ is the operative term because there is always more that ‘could be done,’ if not ‘should be done’) Fridays can be a little slower. I spent the morning out on the back porch, enjoying the birds, the air and a couple of homemade Americanos with my wife, Kris, talking about impending school stuff,  reading the paper, and pulling together loose ends of our service on Sunday at Jacob’s Well. Basically, mulling over and making sense of the different parts of my world, and doing it at the speed of life.

I’ve been getting a lot of input recently from many and various sources to make sure I have a sabbath (day of rest) each week. My question is “Why not two? Isn’t that what a weekend is?” But for now, one will have to do; I’m not very good at even taking that. A weekly sabbath isn’t just a nice idea, it’s essential. One of the deadliest enemies of a pastor is pumping out of the well when you aren’t putting anything in.  I can’t imagine it is different for anyone.

So today there are a few tasks to take care of, but I spent the morning watching the dew shine on the grass, watching chickadees, cardinals, goldfinch and grosbeaks working over our feeders, sparrows washing in the bath, squirrels making the leap from the birch to the silver maple. I’ve still got the State Fair to go to this evening, a run around Lake Nokomis and some time with my family ahead. I think I’ll be ready for what’s next.

The point isn’t what I do on my sabbath, or even how long it is exactly, but what I don’t do and how open what I’m not doing allows me to become.  To stop, or even pause, is a first step to unlearning.  It permits different questions, priorities, perspectives to arise.  It walks around the inside of the box I live in most of my week and kicks at the walls, almost always opening windows in some of them.  I suppose it is pretty hard to not live in a box of some sort as long as there are windows to see out of.

Puts a whole new spin on “Honor the Sabbath, and keep it holy.”     Exodus 20.8

If it were only straight ahead, it wouldn’t be so precarious…

A number of years ago I heard Jim Collins (Good to Great & Built to Last, both get strong recommendations from me) speak at a conference in Colorado. I wrote down this quote that has plagued (and blessed) my life and ministry ever since, “Are you willing to let go of a hard fought expertise, lose the competence you’ve invested years in, in order to master a new expertise and competence that can take you to a new level?”

It’s all about ‘unlearning,’ recognizing that what you know and have is not always the way to the next step, but sometimes the roadblock to it. This is tough for me, but so intriguing and so inviting. My problem is that I don’t like to look stupid (translation: incompetent). At some visceral level I’d rather keep doing what I know how to do and improve it, and maybe kid myself that I can simultaneously learn the new thing and gradually let it replace the old one. That isn’t impossible, but the facts are that I’m too busy (not proud of that) to keep up the old and master the new, and my ties to what I already know undermines my investment in the new.  It’s like learning to use your left hand when your right hand is still perfectly able to do everything.

God is in favor of new things. God lets old things die; sheds a tear, but lets them go. Creation implies brand new, not gradually evolving from the old. Resurrection isn’t reworking, it is death and a brand new life.

Another of my life verses:The Lord says, “Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago.Watch for the new thing I am going to do. It is happening already—you can see it now!” Isaiah 43.18-19a TEV

As the pastor of Jacob’s Well (www.jacobs-well.net) unlearning is more important than learning for me right now because I’m getting plenty of new ideas, hopes and inspirations.  The obstacle is clearing room in my head and heart to allow those great things to take root and grow.

I’ll chase down some of the areas I’m trying to unlearn in postings to come. I’d love to hear what others are willing to unlearn, and what it is that is so attractive, so promising, so wonderful that they are willing to go down that risky path. It must be a treasure of great worth!